Try, try the first time

San Jose State students who flunk remedial English or math won’t be able to retake the course at the university. There’s no money in the budget for repeat remedial students, reports the San Jose Mercury News.

 Opponents of the new policy say it will hurt those who are already struggling: the low-income and ill-prepared students who fill remedial classrooms.

“I worry that if they can’t afford it, they won’t come back. They’ll drop out,” said professor Stefan Frazier, who teaches remedial writing classes. While some students fail because they don’t study hard enough, others need an extra semester of review because they were ill-prepared in high school, he said.

 San Jose State and other California State University campuses draw from the top third of graduates in the state based on an index of grades and test scores. Yet, due to rampant grade inflation, more than half of first-year students require remediation. San Diego State, a desireable and crowded campus, cut all remedial classes years ago, requiring students to co-enroll at a community college. At San Jose State, one third to one half of students who take remedial English in the fall need to try again in the spring; fewer students fail remedial math.

Sending students to community colleges, which specialize in remediation, makes sense for university budgets and for students’ budgets. Those who aren’t ready to handle college English or math will spend a lot less money catching up at a community college. If word filters down that remedial chances are limited, perhaps more students will do the work in high school.

Way too many students are  unprepared for college, writes Education Gadfly’s Checker Finn in a push for national standards.

Besides the on-campus challenges they will encounter, they begin with the handicap of a high-school diploma that signifies “time spent” and “courses taken” but not “skills and knowledge acquired.” Studies by ACT have shown that fewer than one-fourth of high-school graduates who take that organization’s tests–presumably because they intend to go to college–are academically prepared for college-level work in English, math and science.

CSU students typically earned B’s in high school in college-prep courses.  If they’d known they needed to do more to prepare to earn a college degree, they might have worked harder or smarter. Or changed their aspirations.

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  1. Flunking a remedial class is a sign you should be somewhere other than college, and allowing retakes won’t improve graduation rates.

  2. Margo/Mom says:

    My district had a similar policy regarding required high school classes. The actually allowed each high school to set their own policy–but so far as I could tell, all followed the no retakes policy. A student who failed a class could only take it over during summer school or at “night school” through the adult program. Each of these options cost. My suspicion is that if a parent could afford to get lawyered up, they might have been able to challenge the Constitutionality of the one-shot approach. But most teachers firmly believed that it was only their (or their school’s) job to “offer” education. Anyone who failed had simply been unwilling to “receive” the education.

    This has changed somewhat with the advent of NCLB–since graduation rates are public, but also have some minimal accountability attached (the state AYP for graduation is set at “improvement.”). The district has now purchased “credit recovery” programs. Students now have the “convenience” of making up classes after school in a computer lab–under the tutelage of whatever teacher either won or lost out (they get extra pay) based on seniority. Slight improvement. Teachers don’t particularly like the recovery program (they suspect that students fail on purpose in order to have an easier way to pick up the credit). So far as I can tell, no on is looking into why kids fail courses, at what point intervention would be effective, what kinds of intervention (or reform) are called for. Lots of opinions though.

  3. While I feel sorry for those who are screwed by attending less-than-stellar high schools (you know, the kids who *want* to do well and study hard), it should not be a university’s job to teach high school material to these kids.

  4. So the point of this whole post was that the kids should have worked harder in High School? They’re unprepared for college, but it’s their laziness or badly set priorities that led them to need remedial work?

    What about the failings of the government schools in the first place? You even admit to there being grade inflation. Is that the fault of the students? At least you mention that had their grades not been inflated, they would have had the feedback they needed to decide to work harder or change goals.

    By not addressing the fundamental problems with the government schools in the first place, and simply stating that the kids should work harder, you’re presupposing that working harder in that environment would do any good at all. Government schools strive for better teacher:pupil ratios, for longer school days, for more “butt in the seat” time, and yet our kids still don’t know how to think, and lack the basic skills and knowledge they need to become successful adults. Could it be that the curriculum is fundamentally flawed, that unionized teachers are ineffectual, and that it is only the truly exceptional students who can rise above it and get to college with some semblance of an education?

  5. How well do the remedial classes work? There was no information in the article. Without that information I’m not sure I should think this is a policy change that should have been enacted long ago or tragic result of poor economic times.

  6. I’m with C. August. Adjusted for inflation we spend far more money on schools than we did even twenty years ago. Yet we see a steady decline in the quality of graduates. This isn’t just an argument about public money spent foolishly (although it is that), it’s much more importantly an argument about turning out high school graduates that are not equipped to be productive citizens. Think of the staggering cost of having at least 25 percent of your population fit for no more productive work than “you want fries with that?”

  7. pm, the remedial English classes at the Midwestern university where I teach has a simple policy. They try to teach middle-school level material to students that may or may not try to learn it, and the teachers aren’t allowed to give anyone less than a C for the course, regardless of whether the student did the work.

    And Rob, many of my students aren’t fit even for the “You want fries with that?” jobs.

    Honestly, the only reason I managed to learn anything in school was because I was self-motivated, and largely self-taught–and that was more than ten years ago. School quality has done nothing but decline, judging by the declining abilities of the students I see, year by year.

    We desperately need clear, high, nationwide standards, and ability tracking in our schools. Either that, or public schools need to give way to something that works–like tracking students to programs and schools by ability.

  8. CharterMom says:

    I agree with those that point out that just saying the kids should work harder is not enough — if they were being given “B’s” then they were being given the feedback that they — and their parents — were doing OK when they really weren’t. I know it is an ongoing battle in my house to convince my boys that they need to work harder when they can get B’s with little to no effort. My high schooler is starting to get it. My middle schooler isn’t there yet.

    But reading this article makes me wonder if the lack of adequate preparation in high school isn’t also having an effect on the brighter and more academically oriented kids by driving them towards increasingly heavy workloads in order to distinguish themselves from the others. I know that at our high school it is not uncommon for students to load their schedules with AP courses and stuggle under the load. While the AP courses offer challenges, taking 4 at once (the norm for many juniors at my son’s high school) results in a very heavy workload especially when added to the other, often honors or advanced,courses taken at the same time. Consider also that while a typical college student takes 5 courses at once and spends 15 to 20 hours a week in a classroom, the typical high school student is taking 6 courses and spending 30 hrs (not including lunch period)in school. That is 10 to 15 hours a week that is available for homework for college students that is not available to high school students. Is it any wonder these kids are stressed? Perhaps if grades weren’t so inflated then the brighter students could feel comfortable taking a couple of APs and then complete their schedules with challenging but not as intense Honors courses.

  9. I think the advent of remedial classes in 4-year colleges is relatively recent. I attended a state university in the 60s and never even heard of a remedial course.

    The math department did offer pre-calc and calculus, since only a few high schools in the state were big enough to offer calc and many schools were too small to offer pre-calc. The freshman weeder courses were Freshman English literature and composition and the first-level sciences; chemistry, physics, biology, botany and geology. The latter two were the “easy” ones and could not be taken for credit by any science majors in Arts/Sciences, Nursing/Health Sciences or Agriculture. I’m almost certain they counted in el ed and perhaps in secondary ed as well. By today’s standards, they would be considered very difficult.

    The basic premise in those days was that the freshman year was supposed to weed out those who couldn’t do the work or didn’t care enough to apply themselves. But then, high schools and grade schools were still laying a decent foundation. Kids did flunk and drop out. The work ethic was stressed from the beginning. As one high-school principal said, “learning is an active process, not a passive one.”

  10. Mark Roulo says:

    San Jose State and other California State University campuses draw from the top third of graduates in the state based on an index of grades and test scores. Yet, due to rampant grade inflation, more than half of first-year students require remediation.

    Rampant grade inflation means that students who, 40 years ago, might have received a ‘C’ now might receive a ‘B’ or an ‘A’. But unless the grade inflation changes the rank ordering of the students as a group (which it might, but probably not enough to matter), then the grade inflation won’t change *who* gets in to the CSU and UC system.

    I don’t think we can blame grade inflation on incoming freshmen not being able to read, write and perform math at a 7th-9th grade level (unless one claims that the grade inflation lets the kids fool themselves into believing that they know more than they actually do).

    What bugs me is that a typical CSU student will be in about the bottom ½ of the top 1/3 (the top ½ of that 1/3 going to a UC) of that year’s graduating high school seniors. With remedial classes at CSU running about 50% of the incoming class, we thus have about ½ the kids in the top 33-15% *NOT* being able to perform academically at about a 9th grade level. I’ll assume that the bottom 50% of the graduating high school population averages a bit worse. So, *most* of California’s high school graduates *maybe* have retained 8th grade skills and knowledge.

    I find this very depressing …

    -Mark Roulo

  11. Mark Roulo says:

    I think the advent of remedial classes in 4-year colleges is relatively recent. I attended a state university in the 60s and never even heard of a remedial course.

    UC-Santa Barbara had remedial math and English classes as early as 1985 (I was there, but didn’t need to take them). I’d be surprised if this was the first year they were offered/required.

    -Mark Roulo

  12. Cardinal Fang says:

    There are several San Jose community colleges within easy driving distance of San Jose State. Community colleges work hard at remediation and offer many academic support services. So in my view San Jose State is justified in pushing off these unprepared students to campuses better able to help them.

    An incoming freshman to San Jose State would do well to take the placement exams early and start remediation at a community college the summer before freshman year.

    But I’m with Mark Ruolo– San Jose State enrolls students who are, roughly, in the second quartile of academic achievement, the 50%-75% students. If they can’t write and do math, what about the bottom 50%?

  13. What about the idea that our present education system in America was not created with the intention of all students even graduating, let alone going to college?

    Not much has really changed in American education in 100+ years, except for the belief that everyone should graduate…that everyone is entitled to graduate. In order to satiate this expectation, standards have been lowered, and the net result is the ineffective system complained about constantly.

    We can blame teachers and hearken back to the good old days of education before selfish teachers and greedy teachers-unions ruined the system, but the reality is that the system half a century ago acknowledged that not everyone can or should graduate from high school. Now, society demands that graduation be another entitlement, and then crucifies the schools (or more specifically, the teachers who are forced to carry out legislative and local mandates) for lowering standards in order to make it so.

  14. FuzzyRider says:

    “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again, then quit. No sense being a damned fool about it” -W.C. Fields

    A big part of the problem is content in the classes; over my teaching career I watched in dismay as the content became thinner and thinner. Less is learned because less is taught. If you look at the material covered in the not-too-recent past it is almost amazing that the kids could handle it, but handle it they did (at least those who expected to go to college). It will never change as long as we accept the bizarre premise that all levels of students should be put in one class, which must then be taught so that the lowest can succeed- even if that means that the brightest must remain bored and ignorant.

    I am convinced that in even the crappiest schools a good education can be acquired, but it takes extraordinary effort and motivation on the students part, not just smarts. This is a sad thing- why do we try to drown our motivated students in mediocrity, and make them work many times harder than necessary to achieve?

  15. This sounds about right to me. Nobody is guaranteed to pass. These remedial courses are pitched at about a 10th grade composition level (actually, my 10th graders do more complex work). If somebody isn’t mature enough to work hard enough to pass that — it’s not like they don’t have access to a writing lab for revision assistance — then they don’t deserve to be there. We’ve wasted enough education money on their lazy fannies and it is time for them to go work for a living because they’re obviously not willing to work at their own education- I don’t care how inflated their grades were.

    When that first poor mark comes in, it is time to up your game (not whine and quit going to class).

    It is OK to work really hard at something and not get an A.

  16. “It is OK to work really hard at something and not get an A.”

    I agree. I don’t think the rest of society does, though.

  17. My daughter taught remedial English at a university while she was working on her Ph.D. The only students who didn’t learn and pass her course were those who didn’t apply themselves. And she was very up front with her contractual arrangement: this is what you need to do to get an A, this is what you need to do to get a B, etc.

    All her students who passed the 2nd semester remedial course had no problem with regular Freshman English when they took it.

  18. why do we try to drown our motivated students in mediocrity, and make them work many times harder than necessary to achieve?

    Because the people running the system think “Harrison Bergeron” is a description of utopia.

  19. Re: “Drowning motivated students in mediocrity”

    This wouldn’t happen if two key shifts could take place:

    1. Disregard the push for the heterogeneous classroom and recognize that grouping by ability level better serves all. I have never seen convincing evidence or witnessed in my own teaching that having a tremendous gulf in skills between the highest and the lowest in the classroom serves either one well. The premise that the low students will follow the model of the higher students is ridiculous…and the one or two models of this which may have happened in history are not compelling enough to warrant continuing heterogeneous groupings.

    2. End social promotion in K-12. If a student does not have the skills to advance to the next level of challenge, give them another try. This way they are all the more prepared for the next degree of challenge and the teacher/system is not compelled to water it down or “aim for the middle” of an ever broadening skill range.

  20. 3. Accept that some kids will stop after 8th grade. If they have had an appropriate foundation to this point, as used to be the case, they will be able to function quite well in the work world.

    4. Accept that some kids would prefer and benefit from good vocational programs and bring them back. New Hampshire has the right idea.

    5. Accept that SOME, SEVERELY DISABLED, kids do not belong in an academic setting at all. SOME others would be better served by programs focused on life/work skills. Pretending that “all” will be “proficient” academically amounts to sticking one’s head in the samd. It’s part of homogeneous grouping.

    6. Eliminate all education majors, undergrad and grad. Content degrees. For k-5, a multi-disciplinary major can be created.

    7. Remove dangerous/criminal kids to another, secure, location. PERIOD

    8. Allow and encourage acceleration. Offer not just better pace but more and deeper content.

  21. I’m with you momof4 on all but #6. I teach 9th and 10th grade Language Arts and have a degree in English Literature. I was completely unprepared to effectively teach after that degree. Luckily, I earned in a pre-service Master of Arts in Teaching degree from a program which helped me learn the art and science of transmitting my content knowledge effectively. I agree that content is important, but perhaps a minor or dual degree in pedagogy, practice and classroom management. There is actually evidence that teachers with advanced content degrees (MA, MS, PhD in content) actually have a detrimental effect on all but the highest of the high achieving students (top 1%).

  22. I have a relative who recently did something similar. She worked as a part-time aide under an experienced teacher (same subject, same level, while getting her master’s. The class content was actually useful. However, another relative with 40 years’ experience says that 3 ed courses will do the job; tests and measurements, methods and practice teaching, all level and subject-specific. I think that what is really needed can be done as a minor. For el ed, there should be designated, real courses in math, sciences, geography, history, literature (not just kiddie lit), grammar and composition etc. Math and science courses need not be those designed for majors in those subjects, but they should have real content. Far too many elementary teachers are far too weak in subject-specific content. They should also have to take real courses in how to teach reading (phonics) and writing. PLEASE get back to the idea of teachers teaching; no more guide on the side, group work etc. Also get rid of the over-emphasis on creativity.

  23. I’d add a methods of teaching LD and GATE and psychology course that would cover abnormal psych (Lord knows the emails on those kiddos have begun rolling in…), educational psych (Piaget, Vygotsky, etc.), and psych of classroom management. The nuts and bolts stuff that can make or break a teacher.

    Mark, I hadn’t heard of that study — graduate degrees in content area are all the rage right now.

  24. FuzzyRider says:

    Heterogeneos grouping is the product of the belief that if you rub a dirty hand and a clean hand together, you will get two clean hands. This concept is accepted as dogma by too many not-too-bright educationalists.

    As long as there are so many of these ‘true believers’ in public education, the system will not be allowed to change. Truly free private education or home-schooling is the only way to change this utterly rotten system. I would love to see free-market schooling take over, leaving public schools to fester and decline into oblivion.

  25. Of course, if the ideas above were implemented, different student would be entering teaching, especially at the el ed level. The current situation is a combination of the students selecting el ed and the schools; a more knowledge/instruction-based curriculum would attract different students (or drive away different students); the end product would – hopefully – be different.

  26. FuzzyRider says:

    Why have ‘ed school’ at all- it was the most worthless time I ever spent in college. An internship-type program would produce far better teachers at a lower cost. I don’t know ANYONE that learned to teach in ed school, their real education began in the classroom!

  27. The Cal States are not taking the bottom half of the top third. Very few of the top thirds go to Cal States. CSUs are taking from around the 40-60th percentile.

    On heterogeneous classrooms: I’m not a fan, but my Algebra II class last year, as well as all my classes this year, will be hetergeneous. Done well, heterogeneous classrooms hurt the low-achieving kids. Charter schools don’t, in my view, do them well. The suburban public schools I’ve seen with hetergeneous classrooms do pretty well, except their low achieving, low-motivated kids fail–exactly the opposite of grade inflation. Anecdotal, but thus far pretty consistent.

    I agree that we are sending too many unqualified kids to college. A simple solution would be to set a minimum SAT score. But that would be politically unacceptable.

    I don’t know ANYONE that learned to teach in ed school, their real education began in the classroom!

    Don’t confuse anecdotes for data. I just went to ed school and didn’t learn much of anything in class. However, many of my classmates found the experience extremely valuable.

    Because the people running the system think “Harrison Bergeron” is a description of utopia.

    The guy who wrote “Harrison Bergeron” meant it as a description of Utopia. Vonnegut considered Diana Glampers the heroine of the story. Remember, it was written in 1961, long before affirmative action. (I know what you mean. I’m just sayin’.)

  28. FuzzyRider says:

    Cal, I think Vonnegut meant Harrison Bergeron to be distopian. If not, it sure is at odds with all of his other stuff!

  29. Lightly Seasoned: I have the study in hand and haven’t tried to locate it online. It cited in a March 2008 NCCTQ policy brief by Goe and Stickler about connecting teacher quality (and how that can effectively be measured) and student achievement. It indicated that at the elementary level, advanced content degrees appeared to correlate negatively with student achievement; at the secondary level, the same was true with the exception that teachers with a degree in mathematics produced slightly better results when paired with higher level mathematics students/courses, but not necessarily with lower level students/courses.

  30. Cardinal Fang says:


    What minimum SAT score would you suggest for CSUs? Would students who got those SAT scores find they didn’t need remedial courses?

    Oh, and congratulations on your degree.

  31. Thanks, Cardinal.

    The “get out of remediation jail free” score at CSU is 550 or so on each section. I’d say a minimum score of 500 for each section would be a reasonable minimum, which would allow most students to avoid remediation (the 550 is deliberately high).

    I’d also set the UC bottom to be 600 or even 550.

    But remember, both of these would be politically unworkable.

    Fuzzy, Kurt was on the Handicappers General side. There’s this quote from a letter he wrote that’s made the rounds for a while:

    I can’t be sure, but there is a possibility that my story “Harrison
    Bergeron” is about the envy and self-pity I felt in an over-achievers’ high school in Indianapolis quite a while ago now. Some people never tame those emotions. John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald and Mark David Chapman come to mind. “Handicapper Generals,” if you like.

    As I said, he wrote it in 1961. There’s no way he meant it in the way most of us interpret it today; the history of affirmative action hadn’t even been written yet.

    Plus, if you look at it closely, it’s pretty clear where his sympathies lie. It’s a story whose meaning has been profoundly misappropriated, from everything I can see.

  32. It was quite rewarding when a student of mine (a senior, about to graduate high school) told me a couple months ago that after studying for the Algebra 2 final exam for my class, the CSU Entry Level Math test was a breeze and he passed it easily.

    Did well enough on the Algebra 2 final to raise his overall grade in the course, too 🙂

  33. >>Fuzzy, Kurt was on the Handicappers General side. There’s this quote from a letter he wrote that’s made the rounds for a while:

    I can’t be sure, but there is a possibility that my story “Harrison
    Bergeron” is about the envy and self-pity I felt in an over-achievers’ high school in Indianapolis quite a while ago now. Some people never tame those emotions. John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald and Mark David Chapman come to mind. “Handicapper Generals,” if you like.

    As I said, he wrote it in 1961. There’s no way he meant it in the way most of us interpret it today; the history of affirmative action hadn’t even been written yet.<<

    Sorry, but your interpretation is nonsense. It is very clear from the text itself that the leveling is a bad idea – you can tell that just by looking at his descriptions of the dance.

    What V. means in his letter is that he can understand how a society like this would come about based on John Wilkes Booth, etc., and he sometimes felt the same way in HS. He certainly doesn't mean that this would be an ideal world.

    Again, you just have to read the friggin' thing to know that he's not a fan of the society of 2081.

  34. Richard Cook says:

    I am not an educator. Just a guy out there. Simple question: We have been trying for so long to fix the educational system that, except for charter schools and the advance of homeschooling there seems to be retrograde progress. We have poured billions into this with no seemingly good result. I speak to teachers every month. They are in my reserve unit. To a person they are really disillutioned with the system, the games and the parents. They think they have to take the parents place in many cases. If the “system” wants everyone to win what is the logical outcome of this? Pretty much disaster. I hope I am wrong.

  35. Richard Cook says:

    I was too busy pontificating to ask the question: Why does everybody have to win? What is the definition of win?